“Things That Are Unsightly”: Catherynne Valente’s ‘Palimpsest’

Do you think, if Columbus had stood on the bow of his ship, looked at the New World and understood everything to come, all the disease and death and betrayal, all the ugliness, all the blood – do you think he would have embraced it, called it paradise? Or do you think he would have run home as fast as he could? [pg. 303]

Palimpsest, by Catherynne M Valente
Palimpsest, by Catherynne M Valente

So says a character in Catherynne M Valente’s recent novel, Palimpsest, which I’ve just finished reading. The book is an always decadent, at times beautiful, but more often ugly, examination of what it is to fantasise. As a genre of fiction – and here I should declare I read more SF than I do F – fantasy it seems to me seeks to create an Other, held in contrast to, and in separation from, the real world. Where science fiction might take the world we know and shake it up via some plausible innovation, fantasy can simply sweep it to one side. It may ignore ‘our’ world entirely, or place its fantasy world to one side of, under or above it; but it must create.

A fantasy, in common parlance and outside of its literary connotations, has a rough intimation of having been decoupled from reality. Yet the literary genre tries to be more rigorous than this: in her Rhetorics of Fantasy, for instance, Farah Mendelsohn spends a good deal of time figuring out how the worlds in the texts she selects actually operate – indeed, she quotes Roger Schlobin as saying, “key to the fantastic is how its universes work.” [pg. xiv] In Palimpsest, novel and titular city, Catherynne Valente sets out not just to be rigorous but to examine in sometimes uncomfortable detail what a fantasy might be.

The first thing to say is that, under Mendelsohn’s rules, Palimpsest would probably qualify as a portal fantasy. The second thing to note is that, in order to open and pass through the portal, Valente’s characters must have sex. This makes for a lot of copulation. In fact, the blurb on the back cover of the book calls it a “lyrically erotic” work. This isn’t quite right, though: the sex in Palimpsest is functional, cold even, and however steamy Valente might make a particular encounter it always feels devalued. In Analee Newitz’s words, Palimpsest is “a novel quite simply about debasement.” It’s worth pausing over this: Newitz writes about “finding a spiritual realm even in the most ordinary and debased activities,” but sex is not inherently a debased activity. What makes Valente’s sex scenes so detached is that the characters are using each other to an end other than the sex. That is, the act in question is not even something as natural as mutual gratification, and certainly nothing as spiritual as love: they want to get back to the fantasy, to the city of Palimpsest, and their partner is just the way through.

So the first notion Valente airs about (the common) fantasy is that it is necessarily selfish, or at the very least self-centred. The first time a person has sex with someone who has been to Palimpsest – visiting it is like getting an STI – a map of a small part of the city appears somewhere on their body. This tiny part is where they will first appear, making literal the very personal experience each of the novel’s characters has of the city. This is not a communal experience; it is like a MMORPG, in which in theory everyone is in it together but in fact they are each in isolated computer rooms, alone in front of their own particular iteration of the game world.

Once the characters begin to explore and discover the city, meanwhile – and the novel is structured so that, as Matt Denault puts it in his perceptive analysis of the novel, “reading Palimpsest deliberately mirrors the experience of making a home in a foreign city” – that rigorousness, that desire of (the literary) fantasy to make itself work, entirely deconstructs the notion of a magical world. Palimpsest is no haven or paradise; it is simply another place. In fact, in its own way, it is more horrific: it works like an ordinary city (that is, barely and corruptly), but has all the weirdness of Bas-Lag, all the monsters of Middle Earth, all the impossible power of Steph Swainston’s Fourlands.

This examination of the fantastic impulse makes for an intellectually satisfying confection. Ultimately, though, I found myself siding with Deborah Brannon at Green Man Review: Palimpsest left me cold. It’s all very intricately constructed, but the book is in the end uncertainly executed. Brannon seems to have had the same core experience as I did when she says, “While I may not have enjoyed reading this novel, I must admit that it keeps you actively thinking throughout.” That is, whilst  the core concerns prove compelling,the story and the characters fail to engage the heart. Perhaps this was Valente’s aim; yet the moribundity of her narrative surely damages rather than enhances its underlying themes. For instance, it is clear from the outset that Palimpsest is an ugly and unsettling city; reading 300 pages of four people figuring it out for themselves is a thoroughly leaden experience. Likewise, the uniformity of characterisation – this is a supremely stylised work in which every character talks alike (and not at all like a real person), and thinks in the same synesthetically rich prose – obscures and erases the motivation and moral conundra that may have rendered the passage into Palimpsest itself the central event of the novel.

This was not to be: the ‘revelation’ that a fantasy world is just that remains the book’s under-powered engine. And so, on Livejournal, Rush-That-Speaks says of the characters, “Their logic is so different from my own that I honestly can’t tell you whether the book is any good.” A character can make decisions differently to the reader, of couse; but in Palimpsest they can at times seem to make them arbitrarily. As Matt Denault puts it, “Valente gives all of her characters good reasons to want to emigrate to Palimpsest and no good reasons to stay where they are; as a result, no character faces the sort of difficult choice that can be so revealing of character.” Narratively and psychologically, Palimpsest is without movement.

This is a shame. I was greatly impressed by The Orphan’s Tales books (I reviewed them both for Strange Horizons), and Valente’s writing here remains very often a thing of dense beauty (though it must be said that the more urban setting of this novel at times leaves its, ahem, more flowery verbiage reading on occasion ill-fitted to – and rather overblown for – the scenes at hand); but the trick which gave those books such forward momentum – the descending and ascending of their ladders of story – is lacking here, to the detriment of the writer’s material. Palimpsest has something of Haruki Murakami’s dream prose about it, but rather than hitting langurous it manages only stationary – stuck, it seems, in its own treacle. Yes, the book is meant to be uncomfortable and confounding. I admired its considerable bravery in interrogating its own genre, and found much of what it had to say as intelligent and eloquent as I’d expect from a writer of Valente’s calibre. There are many things to commend about this novel, but as a storied exemplum of all those clever conceits, it felt, to this reader at least, inert.